From prisoners to Soldiers: One chaplain's ministry
October 10, 2009
- As an Army reservist, Chaplain (Capt.) Dmitri V. Kostyunin ministers to inmates at a maximum-security penitentiary.
- While deployed, Chaplain Kostyunin travels to many forward operating bases throughout Afghanistan to provide religious support to Soldiers
- Kostyunin provides religious support to troops without regular religious coverage
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Remote Forward Operating Base Baylough lies nestled beneath the mountains. During an evening in late May, the Soldiers attending a small service held by a visiting chaplain heard an explosion and felt the small, recreational building shaking. Believing they were under attack, the troops ran out of the service, wielding their weapons and ready to fight.
An Army reservist from Leesburg, Fla., Chaplain (Capt.) Dmitri V. Kostyunin from the 143d Expeditionary Sustainment Command has spent much of his first deployment traveling to small FOBs around Afghanistan, serving Soldiers without regular religious support.
When Kostyunin was 20 yrs. old, he felt a call from God to become a minister or missionary, to preach and evangelize people, he said. Kostyunin and his wife, Elena, were born in Archnagelsk, Russia, and in 1999 moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he attended seminary. After working as a church youth minister in Virginia, Kostyunin was commissioned into the Army as a chaplain and became a U.S. citizen in 2007.
"A chaplain is a person who helps people spiritually, regardless of religion," explained Kostyunin. "I like working with different groups, nationalities, races and religions from around the world."
In the United States, Kostyunin works as a chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He works at a Florida complex containing four facilities: two correctional institutions and two penitentiaries. Kostyunin is assigned to one of the penitentiaries.
"It's not called 'prison' anymore," he said. "It's called 'correctional facility,' because we're here to help them change, to correct them emotionally, mentally and spiritually."
At the penitentiary, Kostyunin has many diverse duties. His chaplain responsibilities include counseling and giving spiritual guidance to inmates, authorizing emergency calls home and monitoring chapel facilities. Kostyunin is also responsible for major religious holidays. He identifies inmates practicing that particular faith, gives them the holiday off and schedules a ceremonial meal, usually after a service.
"Jesus said that, 'I was in prison, and you visited me'," said Kostyunin. "People in prison are outcasts. It's a privilege to work for the United States Army, but what about people who were neglected at one point by society'"
Some inmates, like Muslims and Jews, have specific food requirements. Kostyunin screens inmates to decide if they are eligible for a diet program. Kostyunin supervises five orderlies and also contractors when needed. Contractors are usually ordained and hold a license to perform a specific service, he said. An example would be a Jewish Rabbi, contracted for two hours each Saturday to perform a religious service for Jewish inmates. Kostyunin also preaches on Sunday and leads Bible studies during the week.
"I do feel that I make a difference," he said. "Although I didn't know it until I left for this deployment."
Before Kostyunin left, prisoners encircled him and prayed for his safety while deployed. One inmate said to him, "When you came, you shook my hand. Nobody else shakes my hand in prison."
Shaking hands was natural for Kostyunin but meant a great deal to others.
"He sees your heart, not what's on the outside," said Master Sgt. Johnny Wise Jr., 143d ESC Operations Sergeant and night-shift Battle noncommissioned officer, who has known Kostyunin since the first day the chaplain reported to duty in the Army. "That's what made him so special to me."
Kostyunin also strives to affect people positively while he serves as a deployed chaplain for the 143d ESC.
Mainly, he counsels Soldiers, but he also performs services and leads Bible studies. He says many Soldiers are brought to him by their NCOs for a suicide evaluation.
"That's the hardest part of being a chaplain," he said. "I'm responsible for the life of these Soldiers. I'm praying that God will give me wisdom."
Kostyunin also gives critical event debriefings to troops, which take place after a traumatic experience like losing a comrade in combat.
"I'm a chaplain first and then an officer, and that is what the Soldiers need," he said.
Taking numerous trips by helicopter, he has visited more than ten FOBs throughout Afghanistan.
"I realize that Soldiers are without chaplain coverage for a long time, sometimes two to three months," he said. "Their religious needs haven't been met."
Not only do many FOBs have very basic living conditions, some FOBs are both directly and indirectly attacked several times a week, he said. Even though Soldiers are mentally ready and physically equipped to fight, they may be stressed.
"It's not just the mission," Kostyunin said. "But also sometimes stress comes from home. Their spouses, families-sometimes a wife will go through a pregnancy by herself and even birth."
Kostyunin endeavors to show Soldiers that he cares about them and wants to listen. If Soldiers are working or performing guard duties, he stops by and speaks with them.
"[Kostyunin] can connect with anybody," said Wise. "You can have the worse attitude, and he'll come by and, 'Snap!' You change. He has that gift of the right thing to say."
That night at FOB Baylough ended well. After the troops ran out of the service to put on their body armor and respond to the attack, they realized their fellow Soldiers were unconcernedly going about their usual tasks. Apparently, aircraft dropped bombs during a mission very close to the FOB, but leaders forgot about the service and did not warn them.
"All the Soldiers came back to my service, and we finished that evening service with a praise song and a prayer," Kostyunin said. "We all laughed."
Although a chaplain's mission can be dangerous, whether ministering to inmates in a high-security facility in Florida or "FOB-hopping" to visit Soldiers in remote areas of Afghanistan, Kostyunin continues his life of servitude and help for others.